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ABC15 uncovers shadow investigation into protest cases

Posted at 6:25 PM, Mar 18, 2021

PHOENIX — After a one-week contract to review a controversial protest case, a retired Phoenix gang detective continued a shadow investigation with the goal to protect officers and a prosecutor entangled in the scandal.

According to audio recordings obtained by ABC15, retired Phoenix Police Detective Clint Davis has interviewed at least one witness in the protest cases.

The recordings also show Davis is being aided by current law enforcement officials who helped set up the meeting and provided him space inside a police station.

His comments were being recorded without his knowledge or permission.

“My only skin in the game is protection of the public and protection of officers,” Davis said to the case witness in a March 4 meeting. “That's what I care about. And, I care about April Sponsel.”

April Sponsel is a Maricopa County prosecutor currently on administrative leave and under an outside investigation ordered by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. Adel took the action following a series of ABC15 reports that showed Sponsel and Phoenix officers presented clearly false information to a grand jury in order to charge protesters as gang members.

The City of Phoenix also ordered a separate outside investigation to probe their officers’ conduct in the protest cases.

Sources told ABC15 that Sponsel and Davis shared a close professional relationship before the detective retired about five years ago. The two worked together on many cases in the past.

Constitutional attorneys said the situation raises serious concerns.

“This is incredibly serious,” said Jared Keenan, an attorney with ACLU Arizona and a former defense lawyer. “There could be criminal liability here.”

Keenan raised concerns about witness tampering and influence. But at a minimum, he said what is happening is highly unethical.

“(Outside misconduct investigations) are barely off the ground, and there are already police officers and prosecutors involved in this clandestine, shadow investigation,” Keenan said.

Following ABC15’s investigation, charges against 30 protesters have been dismissed, but without prejudice.

It means those criminal cases remain active in Maricopa County Superior Court while County Attorney Allister Adel has directed that they be further investigated to determine if new charges are merited.

According to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Clint Davis was “retained to provide an expert opinion” on the with his work lasting from February 4th to February 12th.

In an email, a spokesperson wrote that Davis’ role was “strictly limited to a review of the facts and evidence.”

“We were not aware, nor was Mr. Davis directed to make contact with any defendant, witness or law enforcement personnel related to this matter,” MCAO’s spokesperson wrote.

But ABC15 has obtained multiple recordings that show Davis continued to investigate.

One of the recordings captured the March 4 meeting between Davis and Riley Behrens, a protester who had previously agreed to testify against other defendants. Davis wanted to know if Behrens was still willing to help officers and prosecutors.

The meeting was held inside the Gilbert Police Department headquarters and set up by Gilbert Detective Terry Burchett, a long-time gang detective who also sat in on the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Burchett was concerned about anyone recording their conversation.

“You’re not taping, are you? No one’s taping?” she asked both Behrens and Davis. All three said they were not.

Burchett, whose role in the protest cases is not clear, also had specific information about Phoenix’s arrests and MCAO’s prosecutions. ABC15 has learned Burchett has a connection to cross-agency task forces.

Following Davis’ statement that he wanted to protect officers and cared about Sponsel, Behrens responded, “I don’t.”

Behrens added, “I think she’s a jerk for charging me (after providing evidence and agreeing to testify).” Burchett and Davis then quickly jump to Sponsel’s defense.

“So April had your back the whole time,” Davis said. “April was trying to contact your attorney. It was not April. It was your attorney.” Burchett added, “Yeah, I couldn’t tell you that. You had to hear that from the horse’s mouth.”

During the meeting, Davis also pressed Behrens for more information about protesters and community activist leaders.

In recordings, Burchett and Davis claimed that he is just looking into the cases on his own.

Keenan doesn’t buy it.

“The public certainly needs to know why this [retired] detective is doing what he’s doing,” Keenan said. “There’s no way that because of curiosity he contacted Gilbert police and witnesses and started interviewing them. Somebody has either hired him or is directing him to conduct this investigation. And that’s what the public needs to know.”

In response, the City of Phoenix said they had no knowledge of Davis’ activities or had any role in it. A spokesperson said they would investigate if they identify any unlawful activity.

A Gilbert police spokesperson admitted the meeting took place and their detective help set it up.

But the town denied their detective has any role in the Phoenix cases or did anything inappropriate.

MARCH 23 UPDATE: Following this report, Gilbert police told ABC15 on Monday they will conduct an internal investigation into the meeting.

Editor’s note: This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged,” which can be found at Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at ABC15 is not publishing the recording of the March 4 meeting because it is the subject of ongoing reporting.